Confined 8 is a large exhibition of art by hundreds of Indigenous artists who are currently in, or recently released from a prison in Victoria. There are about two hundred paintings and other works of art are packed into the St Kilda Town Hall Gallery.
It is impossible to sum up all this art in a few words. There is a lot of variety from traditional to contemporary art and all kinds of mixes in between by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the continent. The art, often painted in prison cells on small canvases, are such careful, delicate and considered works; the quality is often very high for amateur painters basically because of the time taken on them.
Waridub’s painted football is a great mix of tradition and contemporary life: I’ve never seen a painted football before. “Legends of the Game” depicts Michael Long and Adam Goodes. (There should be a series of these balls; what about Mal Meniga?)
Ray Traplin of Kuku Yalandji people painted an impressive and colourful scene in “Cape York Hunting Grounds”. Traplin and many of the other artists depict animals, birds, fish, lizards, insects in meticulous dots or cross-hatching work however few can combine so many images as Traplin does into one spectacular painting.
The exhibition was organised by The Torch. The Torch runs the Indigenous Arts in Prisons & Community program. It uses art as a forum for cultural exploration to provide indigenous men and women in custody and on release with a new way forward. This has been enhanced by new legislation in 2015 that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners to keep any money that they make from art sales. The Torch does not take any commission on the sales and the money from art sales is held in trust by Corrections Victoria until the prisoner’s release. Having money to fund a new life on release from prison is important.
A few paintings are NFS (not for sale) meaning that they had already been given to a relative. It is sad that it might be the only time that they will get a painting is when one of their relatives is locked up.
Prison art is a much neglected part of Aboriginal art history. It is an important aspect due to the over representation of Aboriginals in Australian prisons; “The world’s worst levels of detention of Indigenous people” according to Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission. So you can look at Confined 8 as either rehabilitation or resistance, survival in the face of genocidal policies and cultural destruction.
‘Birds’ by Marian Drew, at Dianne Tanzer Gallery, is a small series of large-format, colour, still life photographs. Drew has become well known for her beautiful, hauntingly lite, still life images featuring dead animals. In this series it is dead birds. There is a fairy penguin with an enamel jug, a kingfisher’s blue plumage contrasts with strawberries, a beautiful multi-coloured bird lies on embroided cloth, and an emu lies next to a tiny finch smaller than a single toe of the emu. These photographs refer to the tradition of still life with objects on a table with tablecloth against a dark background. Marian Drew’s images of dead birds are not celebrations of hunting or eating in the way that traditional still life used dead animals. Drew uses animals that have died and in her photographs the dead birds symbolize our own mortality, another older tradition in still life.
The huge, empty landscape of Lake Eyre’s salt flats is the subject of “Salt” at Arc One Gallery by photographer Murry Fredericks. Fredericks’s photographs are large pigment prints on cotton rag. They could be mistaken for abstract paintings because of their abstract formal qualities. The photographs taken at sunrise or sunset show the white salt flat reflects the colour of cloudless sky, earth and sky separated by the thin line of the horizon. To document this strange inhospitable landscape and the heroic effort to take these photographs Fredericks has included a photograph of his campsite and bicycle in the exhibition.
At Shifted Terence Hogan is exhibiting a series of photographs, “(out the back)”. Hogan’s photographs are macro images of nature; images of the repetition and variation in nature are best shown in photographs. I presume that Hogan took the photograph out the back of his house but they could be out the back of beyond. I preferred Hogan’s double photograph images with subtle combination of two images to his single photograph images because they seemed more artful.
Fiona Dalwood’s “Cell” is a large series of photographs documenting of defunct prisons, from Alcatraz to Ararat. These are photographs of the architecture of despair and institutional brutality. Along with the photographs are several didactic panels about prisons, unfortunately the photographs didn’t really illustrate the didactic panels and the information on the etymology of the word ‘panopticon’ is wrong. Dalwood wants to show Michel Foucault’s argument on how the architecture of correction shapes the lives of its inmates. Dalwood’s photographs are on exhibition at 69 Smith St.
I don’t know how to conclude this short review of four photography exhibitions, so vastly different are the techniques and subjects in them, except that the photographers who understood the history of painting produced more beautiful photographs.